Writer Q & A with Sterling Anderson
A year and a half ago, we profiled Sterling Anderson and then, in another post, recommended his excellent book for aspiring screenwriters and TV writers, Beyond Screenwriting. We brought him back because we recently provided some expert advice to actors in this Q & A with Risa Bramon Garcia and we wanted an expert to do the same for writers. So we asked Writer/Author/Writing Teacher/Mentor Sterling Anderson to share his best advice with us.
Before we talk about general advice, I want to talk about what you are doing these days, your work with new writers. How did that come about? I’d been talking a lot with family and with my wife about what it is I really want to achieve now that I have been a screenwriter for going on 20 years. What came up was my passion to change the landscape of screenwriting (TV & film) in terms of mentoring and teaching.
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One of the things I’ve recognized and that has bothered me is that outside of some really good schools like USC, Columbia, and NYU, there are a plethora of screenwriting and TV writing programs, competitions, seminars, and workshops which are mostly run by people who have little experience writing professionally. They have few credits or outdated credits or have never sold a screenplay or been hired to write one. I wanted to do something from my point of view as a credited writer who has had success and knows the business itself, as well as how to write for it.
My passion is when I find a young writer (and I don’t mean by age) who has a lot of talent where I can help cultivate that talent. So I started a mentoring program and I have a few people around the country that I have been working with. They have given me a strong writing sample and I think I can teach and help them. But one requirement that I have is that they have to come out to Los Angeles and come to a meeting with me. Come to a writer’s meeting, a pitch meeting, or a general one where I go in and meet with, you know, a producer of a show or executive at a studio. I bring people in the room and give them hands on experience on how not to die in the room, how to figure out if there’s an open writing assignment, and that sort of thing. Anyway, that was the birth of the Sterling Writers Group. It’s been going very well, though I’ve had to juggle since I have my own career.
When I profiled you, one of the questions I asked is, “What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you started out?” You said, “Film is a director’s medium and television is a writer’s medium.” And if you’d known that, if you had to do over again, you would have started in television. Do you still feel that way? Absolutely. You know, the last movie that I wrote was a remake of a 70s cult film. When I finished writing the movie, the producers were off and running and I was done. I don’t know if there’s been one writer or two or three or four writers that have followed me during rewrites. I have no idea. I don’t even know the status of the project right now. Whereas in television, when you go in and create a TV show and people are interested in it, you know what is going on all the way.
Let’s say somebody is a new writer who doesn’t have any industry connections, but has written some scripts that have gotten good feedback in school or their friends love. What sorts of steps do you think that they should take, like contests or programs or job paths that might be helpful? Funny, I just tweeted the other day. I asked the question sincerely: “Where does the money go for entrance fees for screenwriting contests?” I really don’t know. But in my 18 years of being a writer, I have never been in a hallway and had someone say, “Hey, Sterling. This is Mike. He won the Oklahoma Screenwriting Contest.” So I just wonder if these programs, you know, pitch fests and screen writing contests, I wonder if they are really sincere and do they really help people in their careers?
I think the idea is to be able to attract representation. I’m sure there are only a few that actually carry any weight, that have cachet within the industry. If you were a finalist in one of those, I think that especially young managers would be interested in taking a look at your work. I do wonder too, though. Instead of entering your screenplay into a contest, I think first you should find out how good your screenplay is. A lot of people come into the industry thinking, “My screenplay is the best screenplay in the world because my grandmother told me.” I had breakfast the other morning with a friend of mine who has written on a lot of shows. We met on “Medium” and she also wrote on “Touch.” She’s now on “Vampire Diaries.” She reads my screenplays and gives me my feedback because she has the muscle and experience. So the first step is to find out somehow how good your screenplay is. Second is to get that screenplay to someone in the industry.
I think it’s frustrating for new writers because when you say get that screen play to someone in the industry, you’re usually talking to someone who has no contacts. Many, if not most, of my readers don’t know people in the industry. I tell them to keep track when announcements are made (on Deadline.com, for instance) that assistants have been promoted to agent or manager at companies. Keep track of that and write an awesome query letter.
That said, can you suggest any other strategies? Become an assistant on a TV show. Every show I have had experience on has had an assistant in the writers room who got promoted or was awarded an episode to write. They get in the fold and then they get an agent because of that, then they work their way up the ranks. There are a couple of people I absolutely adore as show runners because once you get in their umbrella, once you get in their room, they promote from within.
There’s one thing I need to say, though. I will be as honest as I can about this, Jenny. Working writers on shows like “Castle” or “The Good Wife” or “Modern Family” – they can really, really write. So you have to get to that level. And the other thing is: they can really write fast. A showrunner friend of mine said to me, “I don’t care how great a writer is, if they can’t keep up, I can’t keep them.” Not only do you have to be a good writer, you have to write fast. A lot of writers come into the business thinking, “You know, it took me a year to write this screen play and it’s absolutely great.” Guess what? On my last job they asked me if they could get a first draft in four weeks. And then they called me two weeks into the job to ask if my draft was finished.
I do love literary managers, especially up-and-coming literary managers, because they work really hard when they find new talent. They get them as many meetings as they can. Literary managers are always looking for new talent to expand their company or their reputation. But you get one shot. When they shop your screenplay, you get one shot. So your screenplay really has to resonate and leap off the page.
Well, I won’t keep you too much longer, but I want to find out with regard to your writers group. What is the ideal candidate? How many people do you take a time? What is the process of getting in? Well, I have a mentoring program for television, which lasts 8 weeks. I do a mentoring program for features which lasts 4 months. You can start any time. The cutoff date for the feature program is July because if I take on a person who I’m going to talk to every week for an hour and read 10 pages and give them advice. I don’t want that to go into the holidays.
First, I want to find out about them. “Who are you? What is your character? Are you serious about this?” I have them give me a writing sample. I audition people because I honestly, if I can’t get them there, I’m not going to take their time. And when new writers send me screenplays, the way I judge them is if their mistakes are good. A good example of that is a couple of writers that are really successful now. They have an overall deal at a studio. They are ex-students of mine. When I first read them, I called my agent. I said, “You should sign these guys. They don’t really get it yet, but boy can they write. Once they get it, they are just going to go through the roof.”
After I read their sample, I ask them pointblank. “How far are you willing to go? Because if you are going to stay in Wisconsin, I can’t get you a meeting with a producer.” And, as I said earlier, part of the program is to follow me around for a day, see what it’s like. I took on a young writer and she said, “When am I going to start with you?” I said, “When do you want to start?” She said, “Today.” I said, “Okay. Get in the car. Here we go. We’re going to a pitch meeting.” Her eyes were just big as stars and she sat there and watched these well‑known actors pitch to a producer. Whether the actors sail or flop, the experience is invaluable.
When someone in my program sends a script and I read it, I hope that I find a jewel that I can pass along to my agent. If it’s a novice and the person is just starting out, I really try to get them up to a level in which they can at least have a shot at getting work. And if I can’t, I’m really honest about it. I can tell you two people that I have mentored just can’t write. They just never got it. They write a lot. They are prolific. But they are just tone deaf.
But I give feedback on whether a screenplay is commercially viable and if they should they keep working on it. If the answer is no, I ask what else they have, have them pitch me a story they want to write. You know what I’m saying? So they are getting advice from me. They are getting advice from people who are writing in television or writing films. I think that’s the best way to go. I think that’s the best way to change the landscape of this nameless, faceless multi-million dollar business called script coverage.
I will leave you with this: A producer called me yesterday. He said, “I watched this director ‑‑ one of his movies ‑‑ and I decided he’s not the person to direct this film. Low and behold, he sent me another movie he directed and boy, he’s in the running.” So when I read a writer and I don’t respond to the writing, I always tell them send me something else because. more often than not, I really respond to the second script. So young writers know that, if someone says they are not responding or they don’t like your first screenplay, they might like your second or third screenplay. My first two screenplays were shut down and I was told I was the worst writer in the world. It was my third screen play that launched my career. Don’t be one and done if you want to be a writer.
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